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Exiled Chagos Islanders return without British supervision for first time

A Mauritian-chartered survey ship carrying Chagos Islanders exiled from their homeland by the UK government 50 years ago has left Seychelles bound for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

The 1,130-mile voyage marks the first time Chagossians have been allowed to enter the remote archipelago – cleared of its entire population in the early 1970s to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia – without being under close British military escort.

The trip is going ahead amid a diplomatic face-off between the UK and Mauritius over ownership of the islands. By an overwhelming majority, the UN general assembly accepted in 2019 an opinion by the international court of justice that the Chagos Islands were unlawfully detached from Mauritius by the UK when it granted Mauritius independence in 1968.

The survey will measure the height of Blenheim Reef, one of the outlying Chagos islands, to obtain evidence for a separate hearing before the UN’s international law of the sea tribunal. The case involves a dispute over demarcating the seabed between Mauritius and the Maldives; the tribunal has ruled that the UK has no legitimate claims in the area.

The chartered vessel, Bleu De Nîmes, is a converted former British minesweeper. Onboard are five Chagossians who cannot return permanently to their homes. The head of the delegation is Mauritius’s ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Dharamchand Koonjul.

Prof Philippe Sands QC, the leading lawyer retained by Mauritius, is also on the vessel, as are journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, the Atlantic magazine and Mauritian media. There appear to have been attempts to muzzle publicity about the voyage. It will take up to five days from Seychelles. The trip was delayed because of a cyclone.

As Seychelles disappeared astern, Olivier Bancoult, who has taken a series of landmark cases in UK courts over Chagossians’ right to return to their native islands, said: “We are so excited to be travelling to our birthplace. In previous ‘heritage’ visits [supervised by UK officials], we have always been escorted by British policemen or the army. This time we will be much more free. It’s the first visit organised by the Mauritian government.

“I have brought the birth certificates of my mother and father and my family. I will celebrate my 58th birthday on 15 February. I left my beautiful island, Peros Banhos, when I was four years old. We used to live as one large family; it was paradise. I have spent [decades] in exile.

“I have never given up taking legal cases because I believe our struggle is a just cause. My dream is to be able to settle in my birthplace. The oldest survivor among our exiles is now 100 years old.”

Bancoult said he suspected that the treatment of the Chagossians amounted to racism. “The British government says it is in favour of human rights yet they make a difference between the treatment of Falkland Islanders, for example, and Chagossians,” he said. “Is it because we are black?”

On the quayside before departure, Sands told the Guardian: “I’m amazed. I was hired in 2010 when I was on holiday and got a call from the Mauritian prime minister. He wanted to devise a legal strategy for the return of the Chagos Islands.

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that Mauritius would win three international judgments [against the UK], I would not have been over-optimistic. If you’d said we would be travelling to Chagos in 2022, I’d have been astounded. I will believe it when we set foot on Blenheim Reef, Salomon and Peros Banhos Islands [in the Chagos].”

Originally the voyage was due to have started in the Maldives, which is only 500 miles away – a one-and-a-half day trip, as opposed to the five days required from Seychelles.

Sands explained: “Early in December, Mauritius informed the UK that it would be visiting the Chagos archipelago, to follow up a case before the international law of the sea tribunal. It asked for confirmation from the UK that it would not impede the visit.

“The Mauritius government made clear that if that information was not received by 20 December, it would start fresh proceedings against the UK. The UK blinked and sent a note back saying they would not impede the voyage.

“The Maldives initially said it would have no problems with the trip but then informed Mauritius that it would exercise a right of veto over the delegation and made it clear that journalists would not be permitted. One can assume that the UK had a role in encouraging the Maldives to take steps to limit who participated.”

Sands believes the UK’s hardline resistance is partially because it fears that handing over the BIOT would set a precedent for the loss of the Falklands and Gibraltar. “But there’s no other UK [territory] that involves a case of [territorial] dismemberment [before independence],” he said.

As the ship left, the ambassador Koonjul said: “Our relations with the UK have always remained excellent. We agree to disagree. But we don’t understand how the UK can still claim morally and legally that this is their territory.”


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Benefits of Health Insurance


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How to Build a Successful Business Without Social Media

Social media is a powerful tool for any business. It helps you engage with your audience and can lead to more traffic, better SEO and increased conversion rates. However, it takes time to build a following. The process can take several months or even years.

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Nuclear annihilation just one miscalculation away, UN chief warns

The world is one misstep from devastating nuclear war and in peril not seen since the Cold War, the UN Secretary General has warned.

“We have been extraordinarily lucky so far,” Antonio Guterres said.

Amid rising global tensions, “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”, he added.

His remarks came at the opening of a conference for countries signed up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 1968 deal was introduced after the Cuban missile crisis, an event often portrayed as the closest the world ever came to nuclear war. The treaty was designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, and to pursue the ultimate goal of complete nuclear disarmament.

Almost every nation on Earth is signed up to the NPT, including the five biggest nuclear powers. But among the handful of states never to sign are four known or suspected to have nuclear weapons: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.

Secretary General Guterres said the “luck” the world had enjoyed so far in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe may not last – and urged the world to renew a push towards eliminating all such weapons.

“Luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict,” he said.

And he warned that those international tensions were “reaching new highs” – pointing specifically to the invasion of Ukraine, tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East as examples.

Russia was widely accused of escalating tensions when days after his invasion of Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s substantial nuclear forces on high alert.

He also threatened anyone standing in Russia’s way with consequences “you have never seen in your history”. Russia’s nuclear strategy includes the use of nuclear weapons if the state’s existence is under threat.

On Monday, Mr Putin wrote to the same non-proliferation conference Mr Guterres opened, declaring that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it should never be unleashed”.

But Russia still found itself criticised at the NPT conference.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned what he called Russia’s sabre-rattling – and pointed out that Ukraine had handed over its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in 1994, after receiving assurances of its future security from Russia and others.

“What message does this send to any country around the world that may think that it needs to have nuclear weapons – to protect, to defend, to deter aggression against its sovereignty and independence?” he asked. “The worst possible message”.

Today, some 13,000 nuclear weapons are thought to remain in service in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states – far lower than the estimated 60,000 stockpiled during the peak of the mid-1980s.


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